Stories from the Holocaust are some of the most enduring of the past century. One of the reasons for this is that they are all incredible – the resilience, strength and survival of those targeted by the Nazi regime is remarkable and must never be forgotten. In The Tattooist of Auschwitz, Heather Morris retells the story of one such survivor: Slovakian Jew Lale Solokov. Lale was a tattooist at Auschwitz-Birkenau from 1942 until 1945 and his is just one of the many remarkable stories to come from this period.
The novel opens with Lale, at the age of twenty-four, leaving his family home. Signs have been posted up in his small village, demanding that Jewish families with children over the age of eighteen send one away to work for the German government. Lale volunteers to spare his elder brother, who has a family to care for. Unbeknownst to Lale, he is bound for the most infamous Nazi prison camp, Auschwitz, and will soon witness horrors that will stay with him for the rest of his life. When the guards discover his ability to speak fluent German, they award him the role of tätowierer.
Unbeknownst to Lale, he is bound for the most infamous Nazi prison camp, Auschwitz, and will soon witness horrors that will stay with him for the rest of his life.
From then on, it becomes his duty to mark his fellow prisoners for life. During his time in the camp, he uses his relatively privileged position to improve the lives of those around him – he trades valuable items from within the camp, such as jewellery or coins, for food from the free townspeople who work inside Auschwitz.
While this novel is certainly one of survival, it is for the most part a love story. While serving as tätowierer, Lale meets Gita, the love of his life. The two survive Auschwitz together and go on to make a life for themselves in Australia. In the book’s afterword, Lale and Gita’s son, Gary Sokolov, writes that ‘the lack of emotion and heightened survival instinct…remained with [Dad]… he found he was unable to weep – that is, until Mum passed away. It was the first time I had ever seen him cry’. It is this devotion and deep connection that forms the backbone of Morris’s fictionalised version of Lale’s story. When Gita is ill, Lale puts his life on the line to find medicine for her. He befriends a guard to send love notes to Gita and finds her a job in the administration building to spare her hard, physical labour.
From the very beginning of this novel, Morris sets Lale up as a character who embodies sacrifice and devotion – he goes to Auschwitz to spare his brother, sets up a miniature black market trading ring for his fellow prisoners, and constantly risks his neck to look after Gita. Recreating the lives of real people within fiction is no easy task, especially the lives those who have suffered as much as Lale and Gita did.
It is this devotion and deep connection that forms the backbone of Morris’s fictionalised version of Lale’s story.
The way that Morris has built up Lale’s character does admittedly make it difficult to remember that he was a real person. He is witty, wily, and rarely takes a step in the wrong direction. There are points where it seems cracks are about appear in the purity of his character – he and his neighbours within the camp, Romani Gypsies, discuss how different things could be outside the walls of Auschwitz. One Romani man tells Lale ‘in another life we would have nothing to do with you either. We would cross the street first’. However, this is framed as the Romani’s prejudice.
Lale is an educated, middle class Jewish man who spoke multiple languages – this is what saved him in the camp and following his liberation when he was taken by Russian soldiers as their translator. Some juxtaposition of Lale’s relative good fortune within the camp and the experiences of the more ‘regular’ people who were not valued for anything at all would have, in my opinion, strengthened the novels biographical foundations.
Morris also describes bickering and tension that erupts within the camp as the years go on – newly-transported prisoners are jealous of Auschwitz’s existing inmates, who have gained certain allowances over the course of their confinement. In these details, Morris shows her reader one of the uncomfortable truths of the Nazi concentration camps – that they were worlds within worlds and injustice existed even in the prisoners’ own interactions. However, she does not focus on these details for long. In this, an opportunity to examine the duality of life within the camp, and the ability cruelty has to twist people, is lost.
The closest the novel comes to exploring this is in Morris’s depiction of Baretski, the guard Lale forms a close relationship with inside the camp. Baretski is a chaotic force in Lale’s life at Auschwitz and is portrayed as a psychopath who happens to be in the right place at the right time. However, there is an underlying tenderness to his relationship with Lale that is intriguing – he frequently threatens Lale, but also does favours for him and seems to seek out and value his life advice. Baretski is abhorrent but also one of the most interesting characters in the novel. Baretski is not one of those men who was simply doing their job – he relishes in the power that has been arbitrarily bestowed on him and doesn’t seem to feel conflicted in the slightest.
The parts of this novel that have stayed with me are those that deal in the small details of life during and following the Holocaust.
The parts of this novel that have stayed with me are those that deal in the small details of life during and following the Holocaust. Things like Gita’s reluctance to kiss Lale because she hasn’t brushed her teeth in months (and his reassuring her they will ‘cancel each other out’), women prisoners in ammunitions factories smuggling gunpowder into Birkenau under their fingernails to make ‘crude grenades out of sardine tins’, Gita returning to Krakow after she is liberated and moving into a flat ‘crowded with people, friends who had fled the city and are now returning, homeless’. Details like these put Lale and Gita’s story effectively into perspective for contemporary audiences.
Summarising a real life in the pages of a novel is a difficult task, especially a life like Lale’s, in which good and bad fortune constantly arrived at the same time; from the unhappiest situation a person could ever know came a love that would last decades and cross continents. This is a story of the power of love in perilous circumstances and a reminder that even the most horrific times can bring about something positive.